Here’s everything that happened at the Internet Freedom Forum, #IFF2016

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I wrote earlier, that I would be attending the 2016 Internet Freedom Forum hosted by PIN (Paradigm Initiative Nigeria), in Abuja on March 8 – 9.

Well, I’ve been back for a minute now, and I have a couple of key insights to share from the conference. It was themed “Rights are Rights, Offline and Online”, and it was a series of (incidentally offline and online) conversations by activists, domain experts and enthusiasts about internet rights and freedoms in Africa and by extension the rest of the world.

Things started off when the compere, Tolu Adeleru-Balogun welcomed the participants and set the event in motion by introducing Gbenga Sesan, the Executive Director of PIN. Gbenga’s welcome address was pretty succinct, but he mentioned the much famed Social Media Bill, specifically stating that if bill got passed, he’d almost certainly be in jail after a few months.

Gbenga ended his address by asking all the male delegates to give a standing ovation to the women in the room, complete with three “gbosas” for good measure (March 8 was International Women’s Day, you see).

Right after Gbenga, came Nani Jensen, Legal Director at Media Legal Defense Initiative, to give the keynote speech. In her keynote, Nani talked about the role freedom of expression plays in the establishment of any (real) democracy. Any countries that attempt to censor free speech while claiming to practice democracy is operating a sham, she said.

She also spoke about liability of third party content, the role intermediaries play in monitoring content published online and the challenges they face for not taking down content which is not necessarily illegal, but is offensive to certain parties. For example, content that insults the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk leading to shutdowns of entire websites like YouTube and Google in Turkey. Even worse, countries like Pakistan, where social media platforms and websites get blocked at whim.

Nani also talked about how the internet (specifically, social media) plays a huge role in journalism – or at least what it has become today. It’s enabled people who would have been spectators to participate actively in the development of a story.

Status Quo

It’s raining anti-free speech legislation in Africa. The first panel was titled: Internet Freedom views and developments from across the continent. During this panel, delegates were given a chance to paint a picture of the internet freedom landscape in their respective countries.

It came forth, for example, that in Ghana, there’s a “Spy Bill” that allows the authorities intercept both physical and online communication under the pretext of “national security”. In Gambia, you can be fined up to $100,000 or get 15 years in jail for posting content on Facebook perceived as antagonising the government.

In Cameroon, the government sees vocal citizens in diaspora as cyber-terrorists and it has positioned itself against speech that it sees to be “disrupting public order”. Mentions were made, of the attempted shutdown of social media and mobile money platforms in Uganda just before the elections a few weeks ago, and it came forth that asides from the human rights component, there were economic effects to the censorship attempt by the government.

Koffi Leon Kouame from Cote d’Ivoire, said there’s not legislation protecting journalists, and the high costs have prevented many members of the public from gaining access to the internet.

To a large extent, the government in Cote d’Ivoire still sees internet activity as threatening.

All this information makes you think about how easy we have it in Nigeria.

Women’s Rights Online

The second panel session was a women-only affair – that is, on the speaker side of the conversation. The moderator was Chioma Agwuegbo, founder of TechHerNG and the speakers were Roselin Kamdem from Africa Youth Alliance Group, Grace Githaiga from Kenya ICT Action Network, Ebele Okobi, Head of Public Policy, Africa at Facebook, Ashnah Kalemera from CIPESA, Uganda, and Nana Nwachukwu, African Representative from iTechLaw Association.

It came forth that many women have been chased away from online spaces because when they share views, they are not engaged on the basis of their ideas, but on their gender.

Gender stereotypes put women in a box, and people assume for example, that a woman on the internet is searching for beauty products and not ICT policy documents.

People are also conditioned from a very young age to see women as commodities. A good example is in video games like Grand Theft  Auto and a few others where women are depicted as one-dimensional characters or tokens, for the (predominantly) male gamer community to…win.

Ebele Okobi from Facebook pointed out something I think is really important though. We can talk all we want about bringing more women online, or e=improving the experience of those already online, but nothing will change until we take the conversation to infrastructure.

If the women in the most rural of areas are connected to the internet, those communities will begin to see economic growth.

Here’s your bit of trivia for the day: two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women, and most of those women are in Africa. Tragic.

The African Declaration

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though; the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms was officially launched at IFF 2016. The panel moderator was Edet Ojo, Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda, and the speakers were Gbenga Sesan, Titi Akinsanmi, Head, Policy and Government Relations at Google, Dora Mawutor, Programme Officer, Media Foundation for West Africa, Ghana, Renata Avila, the Global Campaign Manager for Web We Want and Ibrahim Yakubu, representing the Nigerian Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki.

The Declaration is a document prepared by the members of the African Declaration Group, a Pan-African initiative to promote human rights standards and principles of openness in Internet policy formulation and implementation on the continent. The work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, so the material it contains can be copied and used for the purpose of promoting end user Internet Freedom across the continent.

Gbenga Sesan advocated for government officials to support the declaration because “If you are in government today, tomorrow you will be an ordinary citizen. If you make laws today against citizens, those same laws will work against you when you’re out of power”.

Of course, the representative from the Senate President spoke at length about the “responsible use of the internet”…

Seems to me like a lot of the same rhetoric that has been used in the past to defend the Social Media Bill. And Edet Ojo made a good point in response, “People use knives to cook and for other tasks in the house. People also use knives to kill. Why have we not started regulating the use of knives to ensure ‘responsible use’?”

The African declaration on Internet Rights and Freedom was then launched and the panel session ended.

Digital Rights and Freedom Bill

This was the first panel on the second day. It was titled Digital Rights and Freedom Bill: Highlights and Reviews. The speakers on this panel were Hon. Chukwuemeka Ujam, the Vice Chairman, House Committee on Telecommunications, Titi Akinsanmi, Head, Policy and Government Relations at Google and Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria.

The thinking behind is that it’s not enough to be reactive, and fight whenever the National Assembly is about to pass a dubious-looking bill. There’s a need to be proactive, and so the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill was drafted to codify the rights and freedoms Nigerians have on the internet.

Interesting. Hon. Ujam is personally vested in the passing of this bill because his rights were violated not very long ago. He also advocated for “responsible use of the internet”.

He asked that Google begins to vet everything that goes into their system (which I know is impractical)…

…and she responded that Google does not own the content they display. They are merely aggregators and not curators.

She also pointed out the fact that there’s no legal framework to protect consumer data, and that’s why she refused to do her BVN registration. A position I agree with, even though I’m not nearly as courageous as she is.

In the end, Hon. Ujam said that even though he has reservations about the (ab)use of online media, he will always be in support of freedom of expression. In the same vein, he promised to personally sponsor the bill, and lobby to make sure it gets at least a second reading in the House of Representatives.

Privacy

The next panel was titled “Citizen’s Privacy, Proliferation of Data and Lack of Regulatory Framework. The panelists were Moni Udoh, Director, ICT, Nigerian Ministry of Communications, Henry Okelue, Data Center Specialist, Galaxy Backbone Nigeria, Ebele Okobi, Facebook, Dr. Edmund Katiti, a Telecommunications Consultant from South Africa, Seember Nyager CEO, Public and Private Development Centre, Nigeria, and it was moderated by Moses Karanja, Research Fellow, CIPIT, Strathmore Law School, Kenya.

Most of the conversation was centered around whether having a centralised data system was a better option that the current arrangement. In the end, a distinction was made between Data collection and data storage. It’s impractical to collect data from one source, but the management of said data is best done in a single, relational database. This makes sense because using such a system, we would avoid duplicity.

Major revelation from the Attorney General’s representative: BVN was a private sector initiative, not from the government.

Still, the CBN supported/promoted it, so they cannot throw the banks under the bus.

Summary of the panel:

Surveillance

The third panel on day 2 was titled Internet Surveillance and Government Transparency. The panel speakers were: Gbenga Sesan, Nani Jansen, Demba Kandeh, Journalist and Researcher, Front Page International, Gambia, Sa’ad Abubakar representing Major General Babagana Mungono, National Security Adviser, Nigeria, Ashnah Kalemera, a Programmes Associate at CIPESA, Uganda. It was moderated by Renata Avila, Global Campaign Manager of Web We Want.

Most of the conversation was centered around how much governments across the world spy on their citizens. From the US, to the UK and even to African governments.

Right off the bat, Gbenga Sesan asked the NSA representative how much active surveillance the Nigerian government does and what it does with the information it gathers about its citizens. His response was that the NSA does not do any surveillance, but only collects data that’s already in the public domain. Lol.

Of course, Gbenga Sesan disagreed and pointed out the massive amounts of money in federal budgets since 2013 that have been earmarked for hi-tech surveillance equipment and services.

And to wrap it all up?

After this panel, Senator Babajide Omoworare, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Rules and Business finally arrived. He was supposed to be a part of the first panel, but he could not make it. He explained that Nigerians have nothing to fear since it wasn’t up to a single individual to decide to pass the Social Media Bill.

He was then asked what side he would vote on if the bill made to the floor of the senate and he didn’t give a definite answer. He said, “I have been in the parliament for more than sixteen years. I know what I should do and I think you should trust me.”

Active Citizenship

Some described the last panel as an all-star panel.

It was titled: Internet Freedom, Key to Active Citizenship and was moderated by Tolu Ogunlesi, journalist-turned-special-assistant-to-the-president, and the other speakers were Japheth Omojuwa, Yemi Adamolekun, Executive Director, Enough is Enough Nigeria, Seun Onigbinde, Co-founder of BudgIT, Juliet Nanfuka from CIPESA, Uganda, and Kathleen Ndongmo, Lead Consultant at Anqhore Consulting, Cameroon.

The session kicked off with discussions about what Internet Freedom meant to the different panelists, and then moved towards a discussion about whether online activism is as effective as offline activism.

It also came forth that governments are being kept on their toes because of online media.

With Tolu’s recent appointment as Special Assistant, Digital and New Media to the President as the elephant in the room, conversations moved towards whether it was “right” for activists to join government. Whether the action of appointing them is a ploy to silence their voices. It was agreed that seats of government are the best positions to begin to drive change. From the inside out.

In the end it was concluded that the internet has come to stay, and it’s a bit too late for leaders to try to control it, or the information it’s used to transmit. Instead of regulating, their focus should be on taking advantage of the platform for communication.

And thus ended Internet Freedom Forum 2016. A key takeaway is that even though the event has been brought to a close physically, the conversations around freedom of expression should not stop.

You can check out more pictures from the event at pinigeria.org/iff/pictures.